‘Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice’ (Sydney Smith)

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post called ‘Right now, kindness might be more important than creativity’. I regretted the title almost as soon as it was up, because kindness is always more important than creativity, but I wrote in response to the rush online by cultural organisations that immediately followed lockdown. It was 7th April, almost three months ago, an eternity in these days of disintegration. It came to mind following a conversation with someone close to me, a conversation fizzing with anger. More and more of my exchanges, personal and professional, are like that at the moment. I sense a change in people’s feelings as lockdown’s difficulties, fears and losses become entrenched. It is clear that this isn’t going to be ‘over by Christmas’, indeed that it might never be over at all, if over implies a short interruption in normal service. This is a sea change, and whatever normal looks like in future, it will not be what it was. 

It’s hard not to make a connection with the Kübler-Ross model of grief, in which anger follows denial. If that five stage process has become familiar, almost a cliché, it’s surely because we recognise in it our own experience. The pandemic saw a period of denial – some governments are still there – but after three months that’s hard to maintain. Effort and sacrifice seem to have earned us little; nor do they show much sign of ending. In such  circumstances, anger is understandable, though it’s not always turned towards deserving targets. I have no gift for anger (which has its problems) so some of my conversations are now very one-sided. My part is mainly to listen. Alternative interpretations, even reassurance, are rarely wanted, so I try to accept the reality and legitimacy of the feelings being shared. I have little to offer but time and respect right now, and perhaps that will do.

In the Kübler-Ross cycle, anger is followed by depression, something too many people know well. At such times I recall this letter from Sydney Smith, written exactly 200 years ago:

Dear Lady Georgiana, Nobody has suffered more from low spirits that I have done—so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

Selected Letters of Sydney Smith, ed. Nowell C. Smith, Oxford 1956

Despite oddities of its time and culture – I’m not sure many readers of this blog will want to avoid poetry, dramatic representations, music and novels – I like this kind and level-headed guide to living with low spirits and, indeed, with the griefs of lockdown. Smith is especially wise to recognise that being kind to oneself is as necessary as it can be difficult. And if he were writing today, he might add: limit your exposure to the news and social media. However you are, I wish you a kind day.


  1. Did Lady Georgina reply? I’m not sure about the cold bath although people do speak highly of cold water swimming. I feel hot water is an important modern indulgence. Swimming is good but I often like to adapt Oscar Wilde’s quotation in this regard. I love swimming. I could watch it all day.

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